The End of the World
By some miracle, they found a parking spot. Granted, it was at a price that made Lilly balk, even knowing it was on the department's dime, not hers. But the look in Scotty's eyes told her, in no uncertain terms, that he didn't care what it cost. They were here, they were parking, and that settled it.
Their parking space was, of course, still several blocks away from Grand Central. Lilly fell into step with her partner, but their walk was largely in silence. Well, what passed for silence in midtown Manhattan. But the honking of horns, the roar of traffic, and the voices of passersby were the perfect backdrop for her chaotic thoughts as she replayed the events in the car.
One minute, she and Scotty were talking, laughing, bonding. The next, he'd asked her that question, and then he was looking at her, and looking at her, and then…had he almost kissed her? It looked like he was thinking about it, the way those gorgeous dark eyes flitted to her lips. He'd swallowed hard. Inched closer.
But then the light turned, the horn honked, and the moment was shattered. And maybe she wasn't remembering correctly. Maybe he hadn't really moved closer or let his gaze linger on her mouth. Maybe it was just her imagination. The product of Saccardo being gone and her missing him.
But either way, she couldn't stop wondering what would've happened if she and Scotty hadn't been interrupted. What it would've been like to feel those lips on hers. To taste them. To have him pull her close and hold her in his arms. And these were things she'd never, ever wondered about her partner.
She glanced toward him. His gaze was straight ahead; he seemed locked in his own thoughts. Thoughts she could only guess at. He wasn't acting any different; she'd never know from his demeanor that anything had happened, or almost happened.
So maybe it hadn't.
And even if it had, it wasn't anything. It was just a moment. The fleeting sort of something she supposed was bound to happen when two people spent a lot of time together, sharing things of a decidedly personal nature.
Well, whatever it was, whether anything had almost happened or not, it hadn't. That was doubtless for the best. Besides, the gaping stone archway of Grand Central beckoned, along with what seemed like, and probably was, thousands upon thousands of people.
Melding into the swarm of humanity, Lilly headed toward the bookstore and wrapped herself in the comfort of the job she was here to do. A job she loved. A job that, thankfully, required her to block out everything else.
Best of all? It was a job that would allow her, in a few short minutes, to come face to face with one of the people who'd inspired her to do it in the first place.
She was about to meet Rick Rodgers.
The line at the book signing shuffled forward with almost glacial slowness; the cacophony of crowd noise blended individual conversations into a meaningless blur. Despite his impatience, Scotty resisted the urge to glance at his watch to see just how long they'd been at this. He was pretty sure he didn't want to know.
He hadn't wanted to wait in line in the first place. All they'd have needed to do to get to Rodgers was go to the front, whip out their badges, and be done with the damn thing. They had a murderer to catch, and mooing along with a herd of hardback-clutching humanity in an overcrowded, overheated bookstore was not on Scotty's agenda for getting that accomplished.
But then Lil had turned to him, an uncharacteristic twinkle in her eyes, and pointed out that the department was already footing the bill for an overnight stay, so they had time for a little fun. He'd stared at her cockeyed, not quite understanding why this fit her definition of "fun."
That was when she'd grinned and slipped a worn-looking copy of Rifles and Rings out of her shoulder bag. At that, he knew he'd lost. When she looked at him like that, he was powerless to deny her anything.
So they took their place at the back of the line, and Scotty tried like hell to focus on what they were there to do and not on the electrical charge that still hummed between him and his partner. He couldn't believe how quickly the barrier of professionalism had started to show some cracks. He'd thought that thing was six feet thick.
Maybe not. Because he couldn't stop glancing over at her. Couldn't stop wishing he could reach over and caress the softly curled ends of her pale blonde ponytail. Couldn't stop wanting to take her hand and interlace his fingers with hers all over again. Ever since he let go earlier, he'd felt like part of himself was missing.
Finally, they reached the little table where Rick Rodgers held court. Their suspect looked up through a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and fixed Lilly with a rakish grin. "Well, hello there, young lady."
"Wow." Her voice came out a breathy, tremulous shadow of its usual strong self. "Wow. Rick Rodgers. I can't believe I'm meeting you. Wow."
Scotty fought back a surprised chuckle as his pink-cheeked partner placed her well-loved hardback on the table in front of her hero. Star-struck Lil was, God help him, the most adorable thing he'd ever seen.
"Rifles and Rings. You must be a true fan. Haven't signed one of these in years." His grin widening, Rodgers opened the book, his silver Sharpie poised over the inside cover. "And to whom shall I make this out?"
She looked blank for a moment, then seemed to remember why she'd come. "Oh. To Lil—Lilly. With two Ls. Lilly."
Ay, Dios mio. She was making his heart hurt again.
Rodgers's pen danced across the page, filling the air with its pungent odor, and that's when Lilly snapped out of it and reached for her badge. "Actually, it's Detective Lilly Rush. Philadelphia Homicide."
"All the way from Philly?" Rodgers's bright smile faltered as he handed Lilly her newly-autographed book. "Well, color me flattered, Detective."
"We ain't just here as fans." Scotty stepped forward, badge in hand. "I'm her partner, Detective Valens. We need to ask you a few questions about Ellie King."
Rodgers' transformation was just as rapid, and dramatic, as Lilly's had been. He blanched; the roguish crinkles around his eyes gave way to deeply etched lines. His sure, steady hands shook so much that the Sharpie fell to the table with a loud clatter, rolled to the edge, and fell to the floor. A murmur swept through the crowd.
The young, strawberry blonde woman standing to Rodgers' left frowned with concern as she bent down to retrieve the pen. "Are you all right, Mr. Rodgers?" She laid a hand on his tweed-covered shoulder as she straightened. "Do you need to take a break?"
It seemed to take a moment for the question to register. Then, Rodgers sprang into detached action. "A break. Yes. Yes. A break." He slowly rose from the table, bumping into the large, grinning, cardboard version of himself that was, at this moment, so different from the live version it may as well have been a cartoon. "A break. I'll need until tomorrow."
His young assistant looked quietly panicked for a moment, then moved between Rodgers and the crowd, waving them away with slender, slightly freckled arms. "All right, ladies and gentlemen, our sincerest apologies, but Mr. Rodgers is feeling a bit ill…"
The crowd groaned, but started a reluctant retreat. Oblivious to them, Rodgers leaned forward, blue eyes fixed on Lilly. "There's…there's information then? About Ellie?"
Lilly studied him for a moment. "Yes."
"Then, do you mind terribly if we have this conversation in private? At my loft?"
Scotty stepped to the other side of Rodgers and gently grasped his elbow. "Long as you don't mind us drivin'."
"Ellie is…was…is my inspiration. My muse." Rick Rodgers sat at a massive oaken desk in the pipe smoke-scented study of his penthouse loft, flanked by seemingly endless floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and walls adorned with framed covers of each of his forty-five novels. Glancing up at those walls, he indicated a handful of frames in the corner with wistful smile. "I modeled my first heroine after her."
"Kathryn Ice." Lilly smiled, warmed by the memory of many happy hours squirreled away in her bedroom, reading dog-eared library copies and daydreaming about being a fearless, formidable badass like Detective Kathryn Ice, NYPD.
Rodgers lifted a surprised brow. "Yes."
"I read all the Detective Ice books when I was young." She grinned. "Well, devoured, more like."
"My dear Lilly, I do apologize." At her questioning look, a smile split his still ruggedly handsome features. "Those books are terrible."
Lilly lifted her chin. "Well, I loved them. Kathryn Ice made me realize that maybe a woman really could make it to Homicide."
"Back then it was a fantasy," Rodgers said.
"It ain't now," Scotty piped up. "You're lookin' at the first female murder cop in Philly."
Lilly flushed under the obvious pride in her partner's voice, at the tender expression she knew without even looking was written all over his face. It wasn't something she thought about all that often anymore, being a pioneer, and it definitely wasn't something she liked to throw around. But someone had to break through that glass ceiling. She was honored, and a little amazed, to have been the one to do it.
"Is that a fact?" Rodgers's leather chair creaked as he leaned forward.
Lilly nodded. "There are two of us now."
"Well." Eyes twinkling, Rodgers extended a weathered hand to Lilly. "I certainly won't take credit for your accomplishments, but it thrills me to no end if my work inspired you."
His hand was surprisingly warm. A little rough. It could've been anyone's hand, but it wasn't. It was the hand that had penned all those wonderful, rapturous words. She couldn't believe she was shaking it.
"Oh, it did," she said. "Still does."
Rodgers relaxed his grip with a weary sigh. "And now we've come to the moment I've been trying to avoid. Because you are a Homicide detective, from Philadelphia, and don't think for a minute I don't know what you're here to tell me."
The heaviness of the moment settled on Lilly's shoulders like a wet woolen coat. She'd been trying to forget that this man whose words had helped shape her might well be clapped in cuffs by day's end, just as he'd been trying to forget who she was and why she'd come.
"Where'd you find her, Detectives?" His voice was quiet. Almost kind.
Lilly's heart gave a painful lurch. "Well, I…"
"We're still workin' on that," Scotty supplied, then slid from his files a clear plastic sleeve containing the threat letter. "We, uh…found this with some of Ellie's stuff. You got any idea who might've written it?"
Rodgers took the note in a trembling hand and looked down at it. His eyes widened, and then he blew out a quiet breath. "Of course, Detective. I'd know that handwriting anywhere." A sad smile curved his lips. "It's hers."
Lilly and Scotty exchanged a glance. "Hers," Scotty repeated with a frown. "You mean Ellie's?"
"She'd scribble her notes in steno pads she got from work." Rodgers's mournful blue eyes caressed the plastic-covered note once more, then flitted up to meet Lilly's."Ellie King was a writer, Detective Rush. Five times the one I am." He handed the note back with obvious reluctance. "It's a shame the world never got to read more of her work."
The gears in Lilly's mind started to crank a little faster. "Was she published?"
"Yes, under a nom de plume. L. E. Bishop." A corner of his mouth quirked upward. "I assume you can make the connection between L. E. and Ellie?"
Lilly smiled. "King...Bishop...both chess pieces."
"Right you are, Detective." Rodgers grinned back at her. "The whole thing was my idea. Ellie thought it a bit twee, but we made it work."
"So those books we found with the note, the ones by L. E. Bishop…she's the one who wrote 'em?" The lines across Scotty's forehead deepened with his effort to wrap his mind around the twist their case had just taken.
"One and the same, Detective." Rodgers rose from his desk and ran a finger along some of the colorful volumes on the shelf behind him. He paused in front of two slim, age-yellowed paperbacks, which he pulled down, caressed with a loving gaze, then handed to Lilly and Scotty. "She submitted her first manuscript several times for publication, but most of the major houses didn't take female mystery writers seriously. I suggested she try submitting the same work under a pseudonym. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history."
Lilly picked up one of the worn paperbacks, an identical copy of one they'd found in the suitcase. She peeked inside the front cover, where, sure enough, the book bore an autograph just as her copy of Rifles and Rings now did.
"To Rick. Thank you for everything. And you know exactly which 'everything' to which I refer. L. E. Bishop."
Lilly knew without even looking at the page they'd pulled from the steno pad that the handwriting was the same.
"This is the first we're hearin' about Ellie bein' a writer," Scotty said, drawing Lilly's gaze upward.
"I'm not surprised." Rodgers lowered himself back into the creaky chair. "She didn't tell many people about her work to begin with, and her fiancé thought it was just a cute hobby. He didn't have any idea how brilliant she was, or how serious she was about it."
Scotty nodded, his pen scratching quietly across his notepad.
"How'd you find out about it?" Lilly asked.
"The most fortuitous accident of my entire life." Rodgers smiled, remembering. "I stopped by her desk to drop off some files I needed her to collate. It was during her lunch hour, so she was away from her desk. I reached over to grab a stapler, and that's when I caught a glimpse of the piece of paper in her typewriter. One sentence, and I was hooked. I kept reading, and reading…and that's when she came back and caught me."
"What happened then?" Lilly leaned forward, eager to hear the rest of the story this man was spinning. The detective in her cautioned it might be nothing more than that. A story.
"She was more flustered than anything." Rodgers's pale cheeks colored slightly with the resurgence of what were no doubt some of his happiest memories. "A little embarrassed. But once I assured her I wouldn't make fun, or blab her secret to the whole firm, she seemed relieved. She said he had some questions about some of the legal issues for a plot idea she was working on, and I was able to provide that information."
Rodgers leaned back in his chair. Long-ago love surfaced in his expression as though Ellie herself was with them at his desk. "We talked. Exchanged notes. She let me read her drafts, we'd have lunch together…and eventually, it was more than just writing. It was love. A love neither of us wanted, but one we couldn't deny."
Scotty looked up from his notes. "Did James Fleming ever find out about the two of you?"
Rodgers sighed. "To this day, I've no idea. She broke it off with him right before she disappeared, but I never found out whether she told him the reason why."
Alarm bells ringing in her head, Lilly glanced toward Scotty. His pursed lips and furrowed brow made it clear that Rodgers' words had drawn his attention, too. In their brief encounter with him at the car show, Fleming never once mentioned a breakup.
"You sure she cut things off with him?" Scotty asked.
"All I have is her word, Detective, but her word was gold. She and I were planning to run away together. Start a new life. God, what fools we were." Sighing, he raked tense fingers through his silvery hair, then folded his hands on top of the desk. "We were supposed to meet at the bus depot that night. I waited until dawn, but…she never showed."
Scotty shot Lilly a sidelong glance. "That explains the suitcase."
"Suitcase?" Rodgers' bushy brows lifted.
"We found a suitcase belonging to Ellie in the basement of an apartment in Kensington," Lilly explained. "The note, and two of her books, were inside. Clothes, shoes...it was fully packed."
"I'll be damned. "Rodgers's craggy face displayed a curious mixture of agony and relief.
"She have any connection to Kensington?" Scotty asked.
Rodgers nodded. "It's where she grew up. Her parents still had an apartment there, until their untimely passing."
Lilly scribbled that down, then looked back up at Rodgers. "Did you and Ellie have a plan for where you were going?"
"Where all the dreamers come." Rodgers chuckled, then indicated the glittering New York skyline out his window. The sinking sun peeked between the skyscrapers, casting everything in warm rosy light. "Right here."
"So you came alone," Lilly surmised.
"Eventually, yes. Being in Philly, where she was, where we were together…it was too much." Rodgers gave a sad half-smile, then rose from the chair again and started to pace in front of his bookshelves. "Plus, by then, I'd figured out that I was a really terrible lawyer. So I quit my job. Holed up in my apartment. And then one day, beside myself with grief, I picked up a pen and a piece of paper and, out of sheer desperation, tried to—to write her. Ellie."
Arms laced behind his back, he turned and smiled at the small photo of Ellie that held a place of honor on a center shelf. "I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but with my words, I found I could bring her back. When I was writing her, I didn't miss her. It was like she was right there with me."
The pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. "The birth of Kathryn Ice," Lilly murmured.
Rodgers smiled. "Good work, Detective. By some miracle it was published, and after that, I had the money to move here. If I couldn't do it with her in person, I'd come with her spirit. With Ellie as my creative muse." He chuckled, trailing a fingertip over the gilt edge of the frame. "I still hear her voice sometimes. Telling me I haven't quite got that paragraph right yet, or this turn of phrase isn't exactly what it needs to be, or this character wouldn't react that way."
"So how come you never told any of this to the cops back in '62?" Scotty asked, mere seconds before Lilly could.
Rodgers shook his head. "I was a coward. James Fleming never indicated that he knew Ellie and I were together, and if I went public with it, the press would just make her out to be a cheater. A whore. None of which she was. She was just a young woman trying to fit a mold others had created for her, and finally figuring out that was simply never going to happen. She was one of a kind. Not a day—not a moment goes by that I don't think about her. That I don't miss her. Even though I know better, I can't help hoping sometimes that she'll just walk through that door. Or that she's still out there somewhere, that she found her happiness. Even if it wasn't with me."
Once more, Lilly glanced around the study. There were no family portraits, no snapshots of a laughing wife, no crayon drawings from grandchildren on the walls. Only that small black-and-white photo of Ellie on the bookshelf. This room was a capsule in which Rick Rodgers lived, just a man and his work and his muse.
As she and Scotty gathered their things and bid their farewells to Rodgers, Lilly felt the twin pangs of sympathy and envy. What must it be like to live one's entire life wondering and grieving and hoping, all at the same time? What must it be like to have the love of your life exist entirely in your own head?
But what must it feel like to be loved like that? To be missed like that?
Warring, irrational emotions seethed inside her. This was the kind of love Scotty was talking about. The kind of love he said she deserved.
Did she have it with Saccardo? Had she ever had it? With anyone? Had any of the people who'd walked out of her life missed her even a fraction as much as Rick Rodgers so clearly still missed Ellie?
She didn't even have to wonder about the answer. It opened the long-ago wounds in her heart, leaving them raw and gaping.
At the resurgence of long-buried pain, Lilly hoped, against her better judgment, that whatever hotel the department had stashed them in had a bar.